By Jason Herron
The Radiation Protection (RP) department is one of several departments in a nuclear power station. They are responsible for the protection of the station employees, and the surrounding public, from nuclear radiation and radioactive contamination. The RP group is tasked to keep exposure from radiation, As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA) and to keep radioactive contamination in a controlled environment.
Radioactive contamination is simply radiation where you don’t want it. You can’t see it, so it is measured with highly sensitive and routinely calibrated equipment. Radioactive contamination can become airborne, and it is often expected during certain work evolution. Because of this, the RP department is responsible for the respiratory protection program at nuclear stations.
There are three things you must do before you are allowed to wear a respirator in the nuclear industry. First, a physical, then a fit-test, and then followed by a practical evaluation. This is what you should know about masks.
Before you are considered for any activity using a respirator, this includes oversite roles where no physical effort is required, you need a physical examination. The nurse will test your blood pressure and ask some simple questions. Do you have any trouble catching your breath, are you prone to claustrophobia, do you have any allergies, have you ever had heat stress, etc. If your blood pressure is within acceptable parameters and all the questions are answered, indicating you shouldn’t have any trouble wearing a respirator, you then take a lung function test. This test measures how much air you can breathe in and how quickly you can move air out of your lungs. You take a deep breath and then blow through a tube as fast as you can for as long as you can. If your physical examination indicates you are not in excellent health, you will not be permitted to wear any type of respiratory devise.
If the nurse signs off on your physical, you will then get fit-tested. The Fit-Test is to ensure that you have the proper size mask for an effective seal. You will need to be clean shaven for this test. The person fitting your mask is trained and under a federal obligation (NRC) to perform this test in accordance with procedures based on OSHA and NIOSH established standards. These specific procedures are certified with signatures and taken seriously by the qualified individuals who perform them. Think of the implications of sending someone into a smoke-filled room wearing a mask that doesn’t fit properly. Would you send someone into that same room with a cloth face covering?
Once the nurse has cleared your health and the proper sized mask has been selected, it’s time for your practical evaluation. The instructor demonstrates and then requires you to perform certain functions. You will learn the proper way to put on and remove your mask. They will show you how to check for leaks, they will explain what to do if you feel dizzy, they will train you to recognize and respond to the symptoms and stages of heat stress etc.
One lesson you are taught while working in a contaminated area is, always consider your hands contaminated. That means, you cannot adjust your mask with hands that are not confirmed to be clean. Every time you touch your mask, a portion of whatever was on your hands was most likely transferred to your mask. We teach workers to pretend that they have dog feces or fiberglass insulation on their hands, so they won’t go anywhere near their mouth and nose. Everyone should have this training, but it is extremely important for children.
Once you’ve passed your practical evaluation you are then considered qualified to use a respirator. However, in the Radiation Controlled Area (RCA) of a nuclear station, you cannot wear any style of N95 mask without signed written permission from the Radiation Protection Manager. The RCA is not even in a Contaminated Area (CA) nor is it an Airborne Radioactive Area (ARA). That is, the Radiation Controlled Area is frequently surveyed, and no loose surface contamination or airborne radiation is detected. It is still an area where radiation may be present, but it is all confirmed to be contained.
The reason these types of masks (N95) are not allowed without permission is due to them being extremely ineffective or non-effective at preventing airborne contaminants from, not only entering through the material, but especially around the seal. Anyone who has used a version of these types of masks for sanding, will testify, the dust will still get past the seal. If you are around a smoker, you will obviously still smell the smoke, thus inhaling it.
Here’s the real take. Before a respirator will even be considered for use, all other engineering controls will be examined to help mitigate or eliminate the hazard. Can the area be decontaminated? (Cleaned) Can it be isolated? (Removed or Encapsulated) Engineering controls have been used effectively to help prevent the spread of airborne viruses. Some examples are… Don’t go out in public if you’re not feeling well, wash your hands often, cough or sneeze into your arm, disinfect your work area, stand apart while talking so you don’t project your saliva onto another, etc. That list can go on and on to include isolation of the most vulnerable if necessary. All those engineering controls are not only practical and polite, but they are extremely effective and safe. If all the engineering controls utilized are still inadequate to mitigate the hazard, then, and only then, should a respirator be assigned for a task. When a respirator is assigned, training is required.
The question that needs to be answered is this. Are these face coverings considered respirators? If they are, whoever is using one needs training. If not, it then becomes a ridiculous notion to believe that a piece of cloth or paper, loosely placed over your mouth and nose, is providing any protection from an airborne contaminate.
People who wear anything restricting the air flowing in and out of their lungs, need training. Can you imagine the filth saturated in these masks? Just think about an elementary school child and how often they touch something and then adjust their mask. Did they properly wash their hands after using the bathroom? How about the children who grabbed the handle prior? Are parents making sure the masks are washed correctly and often enough? Is anyone checking to see what contaminants are found on the masks of children? Does this sound like a safety measure or safety hazard?
The minds and bodies of children are obviously developing during this stage of life. Should administrators decide the quality of air they are allowed to breath? Have these administrators weighed the developmental effects of children not being able to recognize facial expressions during their instructions? Do these administrators have any respiratory experience? Are they considering the moisture and bacteria pressed against their mouth and nose for hours at a time? Are they considering the drop in oxygen levels the moment you restrict the free flow of air? Are they considering heat stress implications? Are we to believe that there are zero consequences for long term mask use in children? You are an absolute fool to believe such a thing.
Watch people and take notice of how often they adjust their masks immediately after they grab a door handle. A postal worker, with a full beard, was wearing a cloth surgeons mask at the counter of the post office. By the way, a cloth surgeons mask is made to be worn in a sterile environment and is never touched by the user. It is to prevent actual droplets from falling out of the mouth and into whatever body part is being worked on. This postal worker was constantly handling packages and money then adjusting his paper mask. Every person who walked in that door touched, at a minimum, the door handle to get it and then handed their package to that man. That mask wasn’t being used as a safety measure it was an employee safety hazard. OSHA should be outraged by this.
Here’s a final thought. Who gets to dictate, “wear the mask” to Free Vermonters? Does the President of the United States get to dictate? How about the U.S. Congress, the Vermont legislature, the Governor, the department of health, the department of education, the CDC, the WHO, the select board, or can the local school board dictate, “just wear the mask”? If inhaling and exhaling, without the restriction from any form of Government, in not an unalienable right, then nothing is.
If a private business wants to require a mask for access, they can require it. A free citizen can then choose whether to enter that establishment or choose another. A government venue, that is paid with public funds, and provides a necessary public function, does not have liberties, the owner of a private business does.
You don’t care about the elderly, you don’t care that people are dying, or you’re selfish if you won’t wear it. “Just wear the mask.” Those are all statements a bully will use to prevent rational policy discussion. Those who enjoy a sense of moral superiority in their ignorance never want to talk about facts. Their only method for absolute compliance is to bully those who resist them by using guilt. They are standing on the graves of the dead, forcing their political or ideological agenda, while completely ignoring the most common of sense. If we allow this to continue, the bullies will win. Don’t be a bully and stop conceding to bullies.
No human or group of humans have the authority to restrict the air you or your children have the unalienable right to breath.
The author is a former nuclear power plant respiratory gear expert.